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What I have told you was true…from a certain point of view

Since this debate has come up at Sunday breakkie for the second week in a row, I thought I’d see if I could get it raging here as well.

Webster’s dictionary defines science fiction as: fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.

It defines fantasy as: imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.

So on the question of whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy, I guess I’ll have to concede that it has more science fiction than I’ve been willing to admit (the imagined science is what nails me).

However, it’s interesting to note that Dictionary.com defines science fiction as: a literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background. This definition implies that science fiction is in fact a sub-genre of fantasy, which I don’t think I’ve ever considered before. I suppose it makes sense on a conceptual level, but the instances of each seem so divergent that it isn’t obvious. This of course further obscures the original question…or maybe it clarifies it? :-)

17 Responses to “What I have told you was true…from a certain point of view”

  1. Ah, Kaveman – we knew it was only a matter of time before you had to concede defeat on this point. Interestingly enough, it looks like the lowly yet powerful dictionary – of the “demoniacal” fame – has once again proven to be your Achilles’ heel! :D

  2. I can’t BELIEVE you had this conversation again…

    Wikipeida weighs in with the following: “Science fiction is a form of speculative fiction principally dealing with the impact of imagined science and technology upon society and persons as individuals. The borders of this genre are not well defined, and the dividing lines between its sub-genres are often fluid. (In Strong Opinions, Vladimir Nabokov half-seriously argues that, if we were truly rigorous with our definitions, Shakespeare’s play The Tempest would have to be termed science fiction.)”

    The entry goes on to discuss Hard Science Fiction, Soft Science Fiction, and classifies Star Wars (and argtuably, Star Trek) as Space Opera (a term that, to my surprise, did not surfact at my kitchen table last week.).

    For fantasy, the definition is: “In literature, fantasy is a form of speculative fiction in which physical laws differ from our own through a reason for which no scientific explanation is offered, or which take place a world wholly different from our own. In the context of speculative fiction, if science fiction is considered a genre of what could be, and alternate history a genre of what might have been, fantasy is the genre of what is (or was) not.” I think this last entry sums up the distinctions nicely for me.

  3. And based on that, Star Wars could be Science Fantasy (it does happen in the past after all).

    Space Opera surfaced yesterday. But the genre only contains 6 films. How dare you compare Star Wars to Star Trek in that respect. ST is pure, unadulterated Science Fiction without a shred of ambiguity. I have to admit to being initially stumped for an opinion (an extremely rare occurance) when I was first posed the SW conundrum, but what I do know is that the ‘science’ aspect of science fiction needn’t be plausible.

  4. See, that’s where I wasn’t aligned, and I’m still not sure about it. My view of science fiction is that it has some basis in real science, however tenuous the connection. The phrase “imagined science” just seems like an oxymoron to me.

    (This is why I view ST’s warp drive as science fiction, but SW’s midichlorians as fantasy.)

    But, as usual, I seem to hold the minority opinion… :-)

  5. What’s the difference between warp drive and hyperdrive? Phasers and turbolasers? Android and droid?

    In fact, comparing Star Wars with (other) science fiction, it’s not so much the plausibility of the science (or lack thereof) as the complete and utter absence of attempts to explain the technology (in the movies and books anyway, the video and roleplaying games come with plenty of schematics and such, but even they don’t try and explain how everything works). In that sense Lucas is more fantasy-geek than science-geek, but that shouldn’t sway the definition of the genre. I think the mere fact that it involves space travel is enough.

    Furthermore, suspension of disbelief is a lot easier when you’re not even trying to understand how they do what they do. Just because SW has so much charm in that sense shouldn’t mean it’s fantasy.

    If you define Sci-Fi by what is plausible then the majority of the genre is laughable, IMO.

  6. I didn’t compare Star Wars to Star Trek as both being Space Operas, DJ. Wikipedia did. And they did use the word “arguably”.

    However, to say that ST is “without a shred of ambiguity” is incorrect in my opinion. Superior product with better explanation of science? Sure. But often those “explanations” are made up technobabble. The writers even leave blank spaces for technobabble in the screenplays for the nerdly to fill in at a later date. There may be some attempt at merging explanation with current theory, but ultimately it is just as made up. Every time Geordie comes up with some “wait a minute!” engineering moment, I just roll my eyes.

    As for the term “imagined science” being an oxymoron – Kaveman, I have to disagree with you there, there’s all kinds of lovely reasoning that all science is “imagined”… :D I’m sorry, Kaveman, once one starts reading about “knowledges” in the plural, one’s sense of reality gets a little skewed!

  7. Forgive me for attributing the blasphemous comment to you. Although what you mean by ‘superior product’ could end this conversation real quick. ;)

    And I didn’t mean that the science of ST contained no ambiguity, just that the premise is clearly an extrapolation of our current reality, whereas Star Wars is mythical.

    I remember a Star Wars thread on Usenet back in the day (yes, geek alert) that contained an argument about the appropriateness of the mention of ‘hot chocolate’ in the Heir to the Empire books, since none of the movies or other literature include references to earthly substances or products, or even chemical elements and compounds for that matter (though I could be overlooking something there – transparisteel?). There are still asteroids and supernovae though. ;)

    BTW, ever notice how Geordie knows everything about everything, seemingly as much as Data? How the hell is an astro-engineer qualified to talk about geology? The guy’s a walking plot device.

  8. Yes, I would argue that you can’t separate “real” vs “imagined” science in SF. There was a great spot on CBC (where else!) on the “Science of the Hitchhiker’s Guide”, which you’d think was total silliness with no basis in fact, yet there’s a guy making the connections to current scientific theory. He made a great point: what comes first, science or science fiction? Often science fiction’s “imagined” science inspires scientists and inventors. Look at science fiction from a hundred years ago: submarines, television, and flying to the moon might have seemed completely out to lunch but now they are fact.

  9. And the original Star Trek spawned science (or at least technology) as well. i.e. how some cellphones look like those old communicators!!

  10. Sigh…so much of the above makes me roll my eyes…

    OK, Boyo: warp drive is a defined field around a ship within which the physical laws of the universe are re-defined in order to allow for faster-than light travel. Hyperdrive is the three levers next to Han, travelling through which is not like dusting crops. Even the books barely mention a “hyperdrive motivator”, and that’s as close as we get to an explanation. A phaser is a laser that uses phased frequencies of light. A turbolaser fires ‘bolts’ of light that by some miracle have a start and an end to them. Droid, I’ll give you.

    The “complete and utter absence of attempts to explain the technology” is what, in my mind, makes it fantasy. You don’t know how the hell Gandalf’s staff works, you just know it does–it’s the same thing in Star Wars.

    And yes, I agree that most of the sci-fi genre is laughable. However, I didn’t say “plausible”, I just said “some tiny basis in known science”.

    (BTW, transparisteel is never mentioned in the movies, only in the books.)

    Homewrecker: Just because the science in ST is often used as a plot device doesn’t mean it’s any less based on current science. ST:TNG was the best example of this–there were many, many episodes where the central mission or threat was based on extrapolating something from contemporary theories (anyone remember the Soliton Wave episode?).

    BirdLady: I see no inconsistency between my statements and science fiction inspiring science fact. If you look at the sci-fi from a hundred years ago that came to pass, I highly doubt you’ll find anything that didn’t have some small kernel of known science at the time (I’m basing that comment on my knowledge of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells).

    At some point, someone needs to tell me why space ships and space travel automatically makes something science fiction. That’s like saying anything where people ride horses must be a western.

  11. “warp drive is a defined field around a ship within which the physical laws of the universe are re-defined in order to allow for faster-than light travel. Hyperdrive is the three levers next to Han, travelling through which is not like dusting crops.”

    That’s the same thing. Just because Roddenberry tries to base his material on known science doesn’t mean the premise is any less BS than Lucas’s material which doesn’t try to explain everything. Like I said, just because it’s charming doesn’t mean it’s fantasy. It’s also easy to get thrown off because the SW plots read like a fantasy story more so than most sci-fi.

    To follow up on your hyperdrive reference: “without precise calculations you could run into an asteroid or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’s end your day real quick wouldn’t it.” Not sci-fi????

  12. Actually, my point has nothing to do with whether or not the science is a plot device, is has to do with the fact that although ST does seem to have scientific explanations for everything, the “explanations” can sometimes just be made up.

    I have no proof for this. :D I just can’t believe that everything that comes out of Geordie-the-walking-plot-device’s mouth has basis in scientific theory. Sometimes, the shows are pretty accurate. Other times, one truly wonders. Does it suffice that the technology/science is explained, even if the explanation itself may be made up? I mean, let’s face it; I’ve never been given a satisfactory explanation for the solid (what Red Dwarf would call “hard light”) holograms. Sure, the backgrounds in a holosuite can be made solid by using replicator technology to replicate something solid; but the moving, talking holocharacters? The EMH? How can something be solid and at the same time be projected by a holoemitter?

    The ST creators may explain some things, but they do play fast and loose with the science when it suits them.

  13. OK, guys, there’s still fiction in science fiction, but my point is that it needs some basis in science. I’ve been trying to say that my view of sci-fi vs. fantasy is that it’s fantasy when there’s no basis in science. So Boyo, the issue isn’t whether Roddenberry or Lucas uses more BS, it’s which one extrapolates from known science. And commenting that you can hit a supernova while in hyperspace still doesn’t come anywhere close to explaining what the hell hyperspace is in the first place.

  14. It’s when your ship goes real fast.

    What if Lucas’s explanations turned out to be as realistic as the more-BS-y extrapolations used by the ST writers? We don’t know because he doesn’t bother, and that shouldn’t mark it as not being sci-fi.

    Could SW not be called technology-fiction? And if so what’s the difference? Not only does it involve space travel, half of the first movie occurs on a space station that they became trapped in because of a tractor beam, the mechanism for which needed to be disabled before they could leave. Many sci-fi stories are essentially fantasy stories dressed up (and vice-versa), and although SW fits that bill on occasion, off the top of my head I don’t see how the above premise could be replicated (!) sans the techy accoutrements.

  15. OK, fair enough. I guess my view of Star Wars focuses more on the Jedi stuff than anything else, but you’re right, there’s plenty of techie stuff in there as well. I guess we’re back to it being a blend of the two genres…

  16. No, it’s alternative history! ;)

  17. I concede the blend, particularly for the Jedi stuff, but I think the setting(s) is what trumps the fantasy elements.

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